New research, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), found that people with heart disease who regularly meditate may be able to reduce their risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke nearly by half.
For the study, which was published in the journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease patients were enrolled in a stress-reducing program based on Transcendental Meditation (TM). The participants were required to meditate for about 20 minutes twice a day, practicing specific techniques that allowed their bodies and minds to experience a sense of deep rest and relaxation.
“Transcendental Meditation is a simple, effortless and natural way to settle down to a quiet state of mind,” said Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a research institute at the Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa, and leader of the program.
But achieving calmness and emotional balance are not the only potential benefits. Meditating can have a positive impact on the body as well, such as lowering blood pressure, and can thereby play an important role in the treatment or prevention of cardiovascular disease. “It’s a way to utilize the body’s own internal pharmacy,” said Dr. Schneider in an interview with WebMD.
Meditation has been practiced in various forms for thousands of years all around the globe. Practitioners use it to reach a state of tranquility, inner peace, awareness and balance but also for the treatment of medical conditions, especially when they are aggravated by stress and anxiety.
Transcendental meditation, as applied in the study, is only one of many types of the practice. Yoga, which focuses on posture and breathing exercises, primarily for physical flexibility, can also help relax the mind and reduce stress.
“Those who meditate can choose among a wide range of practices, both religious and secular,” said Dr. Charles L. Raison, clinical director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, who participated in a study on the healing effects of meditation on both body and mind. “What they have in common is a narrowing of focus that shuts out the external world, which usually [also] stills the body.”
Some experts have warned that drawing conclusions like these may be premature. Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School who studied mindful meditation practices, finds it hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation. “The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” she said in an interview with the New York Times (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/how-meditation-may-change-the-brain/). “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”
Still she acknowledges that meditating can increase a sense of well-being and improve the quality of life, even if it’s hard to determine how precisely these effects come about. And she agrees that meditation has its place if for no other reason than to provide some much needed rest.
“It does not require any particular education and does not conflict with lifestyle, philosophy or beliefs,” said Dr. Schneider. “It’s a straightforward technique [that] helps to reset the body’s own self-repair and homeostatic mechanisms.” That’s a lot for the simple act of sitting still.
Timi Gustafson RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun,” which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter (http://twitter.com/TimiGustafsonRD) and on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/TimiGustafsonRD).